The Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) will put three works by Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and Pierre-Auguste Renoir up for auction next month. Proceeds from the sale, an estimated $60 million, will be used to build a more diverse collection with the goal of “expanding the narrative of art history,” the museum said in a statement.
The TMA will deaccess Renoir’s “Nu s’essuyant (The Bather)” (1912)., Cézanne’s “Clairière (The Clearing)” (c. 1895) and Matisse’s “Fleurs ou Fleurs devant un portrait” (1923). The works will be offered at Sotheby’s Modern Evening Auction on May 17th.
“These artworks were a clear choice for the museum for exclusion due to very similar and/or higher quality works by the same artists represented in TMA’s extensive European collection,” a museum representative told Hyperallergic.
“We look forward to the opportunity this presents for the museum to expand its collection to better reflect our community, our city and our world,” said Adam Levine, director of the TMA, in a press release. “We want all visitors to reflect themselves and their stories in this superlative collection.”
If achieved, Sotheby’s estimate of $60 million will more than double the museum’s current acquisition budget. An endowment for acquisitions begun in 1901 has grown to about $40 million, but “the museum can only issue one mandatory annual drawing of these funds,” Levine said.
In 2016, the TMA offered 68 antiques at Christie’s for auction, despite protests from the governments of Egypt and Cyprus demanding that the works remain in the museum and be returned respectively. The museum paid out, raking in $800,000.
High-profile (and controversial) museum closures have become commonplace in recent years as museums have faced financial difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic. Institutions have also received backlash for their predominantly white and Eurocentric collections, leading to calls for diversification of their holdings, often requiring expansion of acquisition budgets.
The deactivation of works from a museum collection is common practice, and controversy often hinges on how the proceeds are spent. (Many museums even state directly that art gifts can be deaccessioned later.) The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), which includes the directors of the country’s largest museums, recognizes that deaccessioning is normal, but mandates that the money from sales can only be used to purchase more art.
During the pandemic, the AAMD passed a resolution not to penalize museums for selling artworks to cover costs, but they reiterated their claim that best practice is to use the money only for art.
Institutions like the Brooklyn Museum took advantage of this and faced public outcry. In the same year, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) withdrew three of his works from an auction at Sotheby’s before two were earmarked for the auction block and one for private sale. Her decision came in response to a spate of backlash: threats to withdraw promised gifts, comments, open letters (one with over 150 signatures, including dozens of art historians and former museum directors), and the resignations of museum board members.
Like the TMA, the Baltimore Museum of Art planned to sell works by three white male artists (Brice Marden, Clyfford Still, and Andy Warhol), but in addition to acquiring works by underrepresented artists, the museum planned to raise the estimated $65 million to be used from the sale for employee salaries and share programs.
“We don’t adhere to notions that museums exist to serve objects; We believe that the objects in our collection must reflect, engage and inspire the many different individuals we serve,” said a press release from the BMA on October 28, 2020.
The statement illustrates a rupture in the way people view museums – either as places serving an ever-evolving community or as lockers for tangible cultural memory.
TMA told Hyperallergic that it will use all money from the sale to purchase more art.
“A review of the collections found that the greatest imbalances are between gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, nationality and geography, and material/medium,” the TMA press release said. “The latest additions reflect the museum’s commitment to adding artworks of the highest quality that reflect the diversity of world history.”
Another high-profile departure will also occur in May – New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is set to sell Pablo Picasso’s first Cubist sculpture, Tête de femme (Fernande) (1909), which is expected to fetch $30 million at Christie’s. That money will also be used exclusively to purchase more art, the Met said in a statement.